Alan Dowling



Childhood Perceptions and Family Baggage

While in college I had a tendency to overcommit to everything. In fact, I’ve struggled with this my entire life. In junior high school, I had some kind of extracurricular activity every week night. When I first came to UCSB I quickly filled my schedule beyond capacity and, quite honestly, I don’t really remember all the things I did that I thought were so important at the time. What I do remember is an overwhelming burden to not screw my life up. My general life rule was to try and do the opposite of my parents. I’d avoid drugs, chaotic life choices, and would go to college and do something with my life. That’s a lot of pressure for a young eighteen year old who ultimately knew almost nothing about the world and was heading off to college. A relationship with God wasn’t exactly top priority for me at the time.

My earliest memories of church generally consist of either stuffy Catholic church or weird cult like little fringe churches. My childhood was not what one would call “stable”. I come from what I tend to joke is the new American family – divorced parents and multiple half siblings strewn across multiple states. I attended at least fourteen elementary schools and two high schools while growing up and I was not in a military family. We simply were virtually nomadic.

At some point as a young kid when it was just my mother and me, I remember attending my grandfather’s Catholic church and hating it. I didn’t understand any of the rules or what they were talking about. We kept having to stand up and just as randomly sit back down again. When I finally did get to join the other kids in Sunday school, I was reprimanded for not remembering any of the ten commandments beyond “don’t kill people and don’t steal stuff”. It didn’t help that I had to dress up with a collared shirt.

A bit later in my life, a neighbor friend named Robby invited me to his Jehovah’s Witness youth group. They were having a night of treats in which any kids that had memorized a page of about a dozen verses out of the Watchtower Bible would get a great big ice cream sundae. Robby convinced me to try and quickly memorize the verses before the group so I could come and partake in the reward. What kid doesn’t like the prospect of free ice cream? When we got to the youth group, Robby struggled through the dozen verses but managed to get them all out. Then the youth leader turned to me with an expectant look and I spit out about the first six or so before I couldn’t recall anymore and shrugged. He slowly shook his head and I was denied an ice cream sundae. I had to watch a bunch of other kids enjoy their treat while I sat there angry and dejected.

It might sound stupid but those two examples were a good picture of my view of church, religion, and specifically Christianity while growing up. It was just a series of vague hoops to jump through for the hope of some reward at the end and I was completely ill-prepared for the whole thing.

My family was not religious in any sense, but they were conveniently spiritual. There were always concepts of karma, horoscopes, and some sudo-spiritual feel good dogma floating around my house as a kid. I think my mother talked a lot about that sort of thing as a sort of rebellion to my grandfather’s stiff Catholicism. I thought the whole thing was ridiculous and wanted nothing to do with any of it.

However, although not really raised as such, I called myself Christian years before I ever really knew anything about Jesus. It was just easier to identify myself as such to be able to hang out with the kids that seemed to be from more stable families and didn’t appear to want to spend their time partaking in, gasp, pre-marital sex or illegal drugs. I even wore a cross necklace throughout much of high school.

When I was in junior high school overfilling my schedule, I started to attend my good friend Brannon’s youth group at a Baptist church. I still knew nothing about what they were talking about but continued going anyway because I liked Brannon’s family who seemed much more stable than my own. I did the same thing in high school with my friend Matt. By the time I showed up to UCSB I had already been calling myself a Christian for what was roughly a third of my life up until that point and I had barely ever even touched the bible, let alone read it. I had no concept of who God was and I certainly didn’t know quite what was so good about this “good news” that my Christian friends always when on and on about even though I could fake it pretty well.

My identity got so tied up with being a Christian in name that I almost joined the Christian fraternity my freshman year at UCSB. I think it was around that time that a tugging in the back of my mind started. There was a slow but increasingly intense feeling that something in my life was wrong. I had emotional burdens, family baggage, and by own admission was most defined by an outright lie. I was a liar and was slowly feeling the pangs of something. Regret? Guilt? The pull of a loving God? I’m not sure. I’d like to think it was the last option but at the time I did what I had become very good at – I continued ignoring the whole thing and went on with my busy schedule.

The Dam Sprung a Leak

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that something finally broke inside me after a long term and fairly serious relationship was ended abruptly. I thought I’d be with that girl forever, at least at the time. I even wrote horrible poetry about the whole thing. The girl and I ended up trying to date again for a few more weeks and ultimately called it off. During those few weeks, though, she and her roommate brought me to Reality, at the time a college church group on Friday nights at Calvary Chapel Santa Barbara led by Britt Merrick. That was the first time I ever really truly heard The Gospel. It was the first time I ever really experienced worship. God seemed tangible in that room of ragtag college kids. Britt, the pastor, challenged the group with the concept of Jesus’ resurrection and the redemption God freely offered and I was struck to my core. It wasn’t about going through hoops or reaching some ambiguous unattainable goal, it came down to an act of love by our creator on our behalf as a free gift. I spent the next few weeks devouring every text about Jesus and his free gift of salvation I could get my hands on. The truth of it was too big to ignore. My bible, previously in perfect condition from never being used, quickly found it’s permanent place on my nightstand.

By the time my girlfriend and I had ended things officially I had been attending Reality for three weeks. I went the fourth week and Britt again shared the good news of Christ, did an altar call, and I responded. Two days later I attended the first church service of Isla Vista Church (IVC) which was known as Reality Isla Vista Church (RIVC) at the time. It was weird. It was even weirder that it was the first Sunday church service I had ever attended as a Christian and it was held in the front yard of a house on Del Playa amongst houses with empty red cups in the front yards and the faint sound of ocean waves crashing against the shore.

Community Around Jesus – Issues and all

My first real experience with Jesus Burgers at the ministry house on Del Playa was about a month after I had become a Christian. It was Halloween weekend and some friends dragged me to Del Playa to check out the costumes and revelry. While we were out we ended up stopping by the IVC ministry house and they were passing out hamburgers. I was told that they planned on passing out burgers every weekend, albeit on a much smaller scale. It seemed like such an odd way of reaching out to the community. Plus, I couldn’t imagine how meaningful conversations would be with drunk colleges students who just wanted a free late night snack. Despite my reservations, I started coming out to the ministry house each weekend when the burgers were passed out and began helping out. Within a year I had moved into the house and found myself learning about community on a level I had never experienced before. It was dirty. It was crowded. It was too much sometimes. And I loved it.

Most of my experience with “Jesus Burgers” was anything but glamorous or even remotely supernatural. I know other peoples’ stories consist of a lot of things like prayer and healing but my experience tended to be making sure people didn’t urinate on the side of the house when hamburgers were being passed out to people. It sounds ridiculous but it worked out really well. I had a lot of incredible discussions with people while they were waiting to use my rest room away from the loud partying going on outside on that infamous party street. In fact, for me, that was the entire point of even having a ministry house consisting of young people from the church living in a place like that. We were there to love each other in community in the name of Christ and to make connections with the larger community we were in. It just so happens that Isla Vista as a whole has a community that tends to like partying on Del Playa every weekend, so we took Jesus to where the people were.

I know that this writing is intended for something called “Jesus Burgers” but passing out hamburgers on Friday or Saturday nights was such a small sliver of my experience at that place at the time. Being surrounded by other young men and women who were passionately living for Christ in community together has had a long lasting impact on my life. Living in the ministry house on Del Playa for a couple of years was like being entered into some kind of bizarro world Christian seminary and I like to think that Jesus approves of the whole chaotic hodge-poge family near the ocean.

My own immediate family was affected by my life at the ministry house too. I was so excited by my new found relationship with Christ that I told my whole family about it. Not everyone was quite as excited as I was but my aunt did come to profess a relationship with Christ. I also started having a couple of my younger sisters come visit every summer starting when I lived on Del Playa. One sister, who was living a similar childhood that I had experienced, was able to visit me in Isla Vista more than the other and eventually decided for herself that there was truth to Christianity as well and came to profess a relationship with Christ. And if “profess a relationship with Christ” sounds foreign to you it just means she became a Christian. No one is born a Christian. It’s an act of free will.

I’ve tended to use free will in my life to crowd my schedule. For a long time, I chose to fill my life with everything but the thing that mattered most – a relationship with my savior. I still tend to overcommit to things. My schedule is usually just a little too full and sometimes I don’t make time for God but no matter how badly I screw up I’m assured that God is still there for me. He’s the one that never changes and despite my issues He will continue to love me. And if you’re reading this and you don’t know it yet, He loves you too – issues and all

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